Addressing Groundwater Overexploitation - Large Scale Success of Community Management Approaches in Hard Rock Aquifers of Southern India
India is the largest groundwater user in the world, accounting for more than a quarter of the global groundwater abstraction. There has been a phenomenal growth in the exploitation of groundwater over the last four decades, largely through the construction of millions of private wells, aided by cheap drilling and pumpset technologies, as well as public subsidies for electricity. However, 30 percent of the aquifers in India are now at unsustainable levels of exploitation. With more than 60 percent of irrigated agriculture and urban and rural water supplies dependent on groundwater, addressing groundwater overexploitation has emerged as a critical challenge for India. The broad range of economic and regulatory models attempted across the globe for groundwater demand management has a limited applicability to Indian settings because of unusually high (approx. 20 million) number of individual users, preponderance of informal institutions, and deeply entrenched populist policies in energy, irrigation, and agriculture which discourage groundwater demand management. Self-regulation of groundwater use by communities is often presented as a solution but the existing examples of community management are based on charismatic local leaders, and therefore have not been replicable at large scale. We present an assessment of successful experiences from southern India which indicates that certain models of community groundwater management may be viable at large-scale in hard-rock areas, even in those cases that are characterized by the perverse incentives of cheap power and crop support prices. Under the FAO-supported Andhra Pradesh Farmer-Managed Groundwater Systems (APFAMGS) program, tens of thousands of farmer households in drought-prone areas of southern India have been trained and engaged in participatory hydrological monitoring, aimed at building their understanding of the dynamics and status of groundwater in the local aquifers. Farmers are provided with the equipment and skills to collect and analyze rainfall and groundwater data. They measure and keep daily track of rainfall, water levels, and well yields, calculating groundwater recharge from monsoonal rainfall, and estimating their annual water use based on planned cropping patterns. The project is transforming farmers into barefoot hydrogeologists, and also facilitates access to information about water-saving techniques, improved agricultural practices, and ways to regulate and manage farmers? demand for water. In contrast with most community-based approaches, the project does not seek collective decision-making nor does it offer any incentives in the form of cash or subsidies to the farmers. Assessments show that these communities have achieved a closer alignment of water availability and water use, and reductions in groundwater use have been realized by farmers without sacrificing profitability. With an outreach of more than a million farmers, these achievements of the project posit it as the first global example of large-scale success in community-based demand management of groundwater. It shows that the key determinant of success in community groundwater management is the focus on developing local capacity to adapt dynamically to the annual hydrological variability, through non-formal learning, innovative social engineering, and aligning water management objectives with the individual farmer?s rational behavior instead of collective action.